Yannick Nézet-Séguin on WHY Progams like Price/ Wieck/ Ravel with the Philadelphia Orchestra

“The only way we can get institutions to do it is if the leaders take it really personally.” ~Yannick Nézet-Séguin

For the NY Times article,Clara Schumann and Florence Price Get Their Due At Carnegie Hall,” I spoke with Yannick Nézet-Séguin about WHY he’s doing programs like Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 and Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto with Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and Boléro with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here is our FULL conversation.

Get ready – he had lots of surprises!

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Hi Sarah!

Sarah Fritz: Hi Yannick, thanks so much for calling!

YNG: Well that’s great. Thank you for writing this. And I’m glad to have the chance to speak in person. I know we make music together but it’s always at a bit of a distance.

SF: It is, yes! It’s nice to chat. Thank you. I’m so excited to be writing this and that Josh Barone is letting me do this. I’m co-writing with Price scholar, A. Kori Hill. She’s defending her dissertation today on Florence Price, so that’s why you have just me.

YNG: That’s nice! That’s great!

SF: Yes, so please tell me about this very special program.

YNG: I mean, I think I’ve been… We’ve been committed… I say “I” because yes, it’s a lot of what the Philadelphia truly is, first and foremost is doing. I’ve been also playing Florence Price and Clara Wieck elsewhere as I know you know.

SF: Yes!

YNG: I read you all the time.

SF: Ohhhh.

YNG: And I love it.

SF: Thank you.

YNG: So it is a commitment of the institution and the organization, and the whole Philadelphia Orchestra, I should say, is committed to it. It’s also something I take very personally. And that’s the only way we can get institutions to do it is if the leaders take it really personally.

And so we wanted to continue our journey thru Florence Price’s symphonies after recording them because that was soooo wonderful that we could do this during the pandemic. But in a way it was weird because usually you record something after you’ve played it a lot. And now we did more like the pop music way of doing things which is you record first and then you tour with it. [laughs]

SF: Yes!

YNG: So the Third Symphony, we never did [perform it for an audience], and I’m rehearsing it at the moment, and it’s fascinating how playing a lot of Price’s music, touring with the First Symphony recently, playing the violin concertos three weeks ago, playing the piano concerto again in the summer, now we know even better the language and the idiom like for any composer so we can go much further. And even though I still love our recording, I have to say that in a similar way that when I do a Brahms symphony or a Mahler symphony and we do it again a few years later it gets better. And Florence’s music is certainly like a great wine that really ages very well and that we can keep exploring all the finesse and the detail and the language.

And for Clara, I think I’ve been committed to bringing this piece for a long time and we just needed to find the right opportunity because I wanted it to be at Carnegie Hall too. We needed the right program, the right soloist, and as you know, I recorded this piece with Beatrice Rana.

SF: Oh she’s wonderful. I spoke to her on Friday. What an amazing choice. Yes.

YNG: Yeah, she gets and she champions and defends this piece and of course you know it’s… maybe it’s for better for worse… no, it’s not for worse… but it’s maybe a bit cliché to bring Clara with Robert in a program and that’s why we didn’t do it this time. But I did it back in Baden-Baden and for our recording, but I think it’s very instructive especially knowing that she was there first, so you know…

SF: Yes.

YNG: He really took ideas from her. And not the other way around. That’s why Florence Price and Clara Wieck are… I would say immediate examples of missing links in our music history. Because there’s a lot that can be done in terms of giving voice to composers of our time, women, members of communities that have been too long overlooked or not present in our programming enough. In the case of Louise Farrenc, Clara Wieck, Fanny Mendelssohn, Florence Price, Lilli Boulanger, I would add, those are names where… I think it’s fascinating for concert goers to attend an evening where they hear Maurice Ravel and then they hear two women and they always thought, “no, there were no women composing in the 19th cent or the early 20th cent” and well, guess what? There were. And they were just not published enough or… well, I don’t need to explain all of that to you.

SF: Of course.

YNG: So that’s why I love… At first we were tempted to do a program of entirely women.

SF: Interesting.

YNG: And you know, in a way it could’ve been fun, but I also like that quickly we can have this as… of course now we write about it and it’s important but the goal is that in 5 or 10 years we don’t have to write about it.   

SF: Exactly. Yes!

YNG: But I think it’s also important—in order to get to that point of not talking about it, we need to make concrete actions and focus on it. And some people can say, maybe, “that’s too much” but I don’t care. We’ve had too much of those white European male for too long. We can certainly put the spotlight for many years to try and get back to a certain kind of balance in terms of what we see on our concert stage. The reflections, the viewpoints, this is what I really prefer to talk about. The viewpoints on life—a work of art is a viewpoint from an artist, and if you have only one part of society that always gets their viewpoint and their point of view that we hear constantly and … so that’s why it’s so important to have different viewpoints.

And that program is an example. Obviously.

SF: Oh my goodness, thank you. This is wonderful. A couple follow ups on what you said—why did you want to do it at Carnegie?

YNG: It’s a multiple answer in a way. The first thing is perhaps because Carnegie Hall is so important to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history. And I would say it’s more important than ever because for years, decades… the orchestra opened Carnegie Hall over a hundred years ago. We go every year a few times a year. We take the same train, the same schedule. We do a quick sound check, people have a leisurely pre-concert dinner or late lunch, whatever you want to call it. Then everyone goes home on the train after and it’s a party!

But most importantly, I think we need as a Philadelphia Orchestra to represent who we are in those programs. And I felt that a few years ago it was more what people wanted to hear from the orchestra that we were giving them. We gave them the Strausses and the Mahlers and the Brahms and the Rachmaninoffs and that was it. And as our programming in the last 8, 7, 6 years and especially the last 2 or 3 years has changed, we really had to discuss with Carnegie Hall to makes sure that whatever we do there represents, yes, what people expect from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but much more importantly, what I really want is, it reflects what we believe in and what we’re doing in Philadelphia. That’s why this program exists.

That’s why last year we had the program with Valerie Coleman’s music and Florence Price Symphony No. 1 and Mathew Aucoin premiere. And later this year we’re going to have John Luther Adams world premiere Vespers with The Crossing that we’re going to bring to Carnegie Hall.

And of course why is it important to us? Not only is it one of my favorite acoustics ever but also New York is still one of centers in the world where things happen. And Carnegie Hall being the prime venue—and of course there’s excitement around the new Geffen Hall which I think is amazing for New York but—Carnegie Hall remains this beacon where art is at the moment. And so much is happening in the country and, humbly, I think the Philadelphia has a big big part to play in this.

And we are doing our part and I’m glad that we’re doing it and certainly this is only the beginning for us. Programming this way and giving voice to more women on the podium and women composing, you know, we can extend this to also African American, also Latinx communities, also representation of LGBTQ+ communities, our Asian communities, that’s very important that this is represented in our repertoire but also at Carnegie.

SF: Yes. This is fantastic. Can I ask about… you mentioned there’s a connection with Ravel, Price, and Wieck. Can you give more words to that?

YNG: Especially in the case of Ravel and Price, I think especially in her Third Symphony. You know, the first symphony everyone thinks about Dvorak which is not wrong. What sometimes I find wrong is there’s this assumption that she copied Dvorak, and I’m like hang on. He came to American and used the material that belonged to people like Florence Price and did a beautiful symphony out of it. That’s great for Dvorak, but it’s quite the other way round. Though she composed a little later than Dvorak doesn’t mean she copied. So in the case of the Third Symphony the references that I get are much wider.

Even today one of my musicians was coming up to me and said look I see that she was probably teaching a lot of Bach and playing a lot of Bach at the organ and therefore, there’s a reference in the Third Symphony to Brandenburg 3. And those are references and this is how…

SF: Can you say where? I’m sorry—do you remember where it was?

YNG: Yes, this is the opening of the Allegro movement of the Third Symphony. [Sings Brandenburg 3 opening theme.]

SF: Oh, okay. Yeah!

YNG: That was interesting because I keep referencing Bruckner to them in some of the religious aspect or spiritual aspect of the music. It’s Bruckner infused with an essential part of African American culture which is that religion in general is associated with a much more joyful and physical way of approaching spirituality. As opposed to Catholic which is a little removed in a way. Bruckner has this religious aspect, if I can sum it up in a few words. Bruckner is like a cathedral and there’s something a little static about it, and in Florence Price’s music it’s the same cathedral but we can see people dancing in it. And that is I believe a crucial difference.

And where does Ravel come into play—maybe not especially in Le tombeau but in the Bolero, there is the side of Ravel which is very close to jazz. And which was this moment where in Paris there was the living together of influences like Gershwin, and I feel like this is where it started to communicate together and connect and things became in the air with an ear for orchestration and the use of percussion which Florence Price uses a lot in her symphony. And I believe I wouldn’t say that it’s jazzy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that it’s a jazzy symphony.  But clearly there’s a more assumed way of bringing jazz harmonies and influences into the symphonic format which I believe was the same—uh, démache in French—the same path, or the same goal that Ravel was doing in his own way at a similar time.

And I love the tribute with Le tombeau de Couperin to older forms of music which you know I just referenced Bach now and Bruckner for Florence Price. There is something that still pays tribute to the forms of the past. Its calling one movement a Scherzo because usually for her the third movement is called a Juba dance but then she calls the finale a scherzo, which is still a nod to all the scherzos in the European symphonic forms.

And maybe a last connection with Clara this time.

SF: Yes, please. That’s what was my next question.

YNG: Yeah, Clara Wieck’s concerto is closer I believe to the works of people like Frederic Chopin than Robert Schumann. And in that sense to have the cello being the only dialogue in the second movement which of course is clearly a love letter to Robert, to her future husband. [laughs]

SF: [laughs] Yes.

YNG: What I mean is musically and formally I see a lot of Chopin connections which to me makes it connected to Ravel, especially his more intimate works like Tombeau. There is a lot of Fauré in it, lot of influences of Chopin. I believe they are both connected in this way. This being said, I love connections. It’s my passion in life when I rehearse. I also love to tell people in the orchestra, musicians, always look, listen, don’t you think this reminds you of this and that and that. But this being said, I think it’s the same for every composer. Drawing connections doesn’t mean these composers are imitating.  

SF: Yes.

YNG: When I make connections with other composers, when I talk about Clara Wieck and Florence Price, it’s not at all because I think they were imitating their male colleagues. Not at all. It’s just a way of the human brain to know a little bit more what to expect. And then the surprise of how personal the language is of these women is even more amazing.

SF: That’s so true. I completely see what you’re saying. I’m realizing that we’re at your time but real quick do you see connections between Price and Wieck.

YNG: [hesitates and laughs]

SF: Or… or…go ahead.

YNG: No, I wanna make sure it comes across the right way.

SF: Sure, sure. Or maybe why did you program them together, if that’s a better…

YNG: No, no, no, it’s just… I do have an answer for it.

SF: Sure.

YNG: I just did Farrenc’s first symphony two weeks ago in Montreal, and you know as I was rehearsing it and playing it with some of my colleagues in the orchestra we… We realized that there is something in these women especially at that moment, arguably maybe still now, where being really personal and having the self-confidence to believe in what they wanted to bring to the world.

SF: Absolutely.

YNG: And that is maybe the connection. I don’t want it to be reductive of you know, all women to succeed they need to be this or that…

SF: No, I see what you’re saying. It is a compliment.

YNG: Yeah, absolutely. I just feel that they stand on their own, especially those two pieces. Especially Price 3, and next year we perform Price 4, and I think that’s even more like this. And Clara Wieck’s concerto is truly a work that has no equivalent. Both of them. And that’s what’s connecting them.

SF: Oh that’s so amazing. This is priceless. Shall I let you go or… ?

YNG: Yes, unfortunately. I have an audition coming up for principal trumpet.

SF: That would be very important. I look forward to the performances this week—I will be at all four!

YNG: Oh that’s fantastic! Thank you so much, Sarah, and hopefully we’ll say hello after.

For more extras from the New York Times article, check back tomorrow for the full interview with pianist Beatrice Rana and the blog post of outtakes.

Also check out my co-writer, Florence Price scholar, A. Kori Hill’s blog.